There are Bond films and then there is Bond cinema.

Most entries into the canon of 007 are Bond films, the ones that find Roger Moore battling giant men with metal teeth or Pierce Brosnan facing off against an old friend over satellites that can destroy financial markets.

Director Sam Mendes’ debut in the filmography of Ian Fleming’s British spy isn’t just a film. It’s pure Bond cinema magic, with an endless array of breathtaking shots that feel ripped from paintings in an art gallery to a boundlessly engaging score to the most intimate and personal character-based drama the franchise has ever seen.

Skyfall is a two-plus-hour endless love letter to James Bond, secret agent man, in his most baseline, essential form. Mendes directs with an emphasis on substance over style and yet his first foray into the world of 007 is among the most lavish, brooding and breathtaking of the entire franchise.

The film’s plot is built on the back of key relationships, most notably M’s handling of her agents, the current 007, James Bond, and a former agent out for revenge.

After Bond and up-and-coming agent Eve are unable to stop the theft of a list revealing the identities of spies infiltrating terrorist organizations, an attack on MI-6 brings 007 back into the fold on the trail of former agent Raoul Silva, who seeks to discredit and kill M.

Craig gives a career-best performance as a Bond whose age may be getting the better of him, struggling to get back to form both physically and mentally. There’s a small, considered amount of exhaustion to his work that comes across as being worn down to the point where the mind is willing but the body might not be capable.

Over the course of the film, Craig finds Bond’s vigor first in physical, hand-to-hand combat while bathed in neon light in a Shanghai skyscraper and later emotionally as he connects with, and then loses, Séverine as a means to hopefully get over the death of Vesper Lynd. Bond’s dismissiveness of his past, be it a hardened exterior to loss or an unwillingness to discuss his youth, plays out incredibly well in Skyfall because of Craig’s control of inner anguish and concerted efforts to mask out the pain as long as possible, which plays out well especially when he physically breaks down at the end of a training session.

The payoffs of Skyfall also don’t hit as hard if not for Dame Judi Dench, who exudes dignity, confidence and emotional subtlety as M. As the walls come crumbling down around M, Dench portrays every moment as if it could be M’s last, but with a steely resolve that feels quintessentially British and in keeping with the tradition of spies flying into the face of fear without regard for their own safety.

Javier Bardem brings a magnetism to the screen as the film’s antagonist, Raoul Silva, that reflects both the character’s background as a former 00 agent like Bond as well as a sadistic streak that stems from his perceived betrayal by M.

Silva’s entrance into the franchise – a long foreboding walk to camera where he tells Bond an allegorical tale about killing rats – hits the mark better than any introduction of a villain in the 007 filmography outside of the reveal of Blofeld in Connery-era Bond.

The character’s immeasurable power comes from Bardem’s strength not as a physical imposing brute, but in mentally superiority that asserts itself in the most vengeful ways. It’s to Bardem’s credit that Silva leaps off the screen from the jump and relishes in each and every delicious way he can get under the skin of his adversaries. There’s a magnetism to his performance that only matches something like what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, bad guys that audiences want to see fall but can’t help but rally behind all along the way.

Skyfall also boasts a tremendous secondary cast that helps to form the key pieces for the rest of Craig-era Bond films including Ben Whishaw’s wry, almost too smart for his own good Q, Naomie Harris’ brash and combat ready Eve and the incomparable Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, a former special operative with governmental oversight on MI-6 that proves to be a formidable adversary for both M and Bond.

Mendes utilizes his theater directing background to ground Skyfall in character-forward drama. Events in the film don’t happen in order to simply move from set piece to set piece or in spite of massive logic flaws as is the case with many 007 films. There are clear motivations behind each decision that cause events to unfold in a natural way, especially when it comes to Silva’s intentions as a villain hoping to exact psychological torture as much, if not more so, than physical pain.

The film wouldn’t be nearly the masterpiece that it is without Roger Deakins’ striking, transfixing cinematography that encapsulates Bond in a post-modern world with a distinctly retro feel, as if the exceptional storytellers of the 1960s had been transported to 2012 and given the technology to produce content with digital cameras.

There are countless iconic visual moments across Skyfall that will stand the test of time: Bond appearing through the shadows with his Walther PPK as a lone beam of sunlight pulls him into frame; M looking on in somber despair over a series of caskets covered in British flags; a tuxedoed 007 standing tall and intimidating as he floats on a water taxi to a casino in Macao passing through the mouths of dragons; the vivid imagery of the night siege on Bond’s childhood home, especially the underwater battle between Bond and a nameless thug in a frozen pond and M’s escape to the chapel.

Action sequences in Skyfall are grandiose in their impact and flow seamlessly from set piece to set piece within the larger scene as a whole that keeps viewers constantly on the edge of their seats. The opening pre-title pursuit widely varies in tone from slow-burn to shootout to driving to thriller moments on a train without any gaps, thanks in large part to sharp editing and a majestic score by Thomas Newman.

Mendes is able to blend action with high drama in the film’s final action sequence, a lengthy siege of Bond’s childhood home where he, M and the manor’s keeper Kincade are holed up in. Each portion of the sequence has its own unique style, going from an elevated Home Alone style booby trap section to a more demonstrative assault that evokes more high cinema war films and culminating with the most poignant of death scenes in franchise history in the family’s church. It’s a majestic ending to cap off and solidify Skyfall as a top three entry in the filmography and cement Bond’s shattered state of mind with resolve moving forward.

Adele’s rapturous title ballad is the first Bond theme song in franchise history to win an Academy Award and rightfully so. Returning to the big, audacious style of classic Bond themes, her dulcet, yet melancholic tones set a somber, introspective mood for Mendes’ film and are wonderfully encased by an animated title sequence that foreshadows the final showdown in Scotland and the impactful opening moments where Bond seemingly falls to his death after being shot off a train and into the river below.

Skyfall will stand with both Casino Royale as well as classic Sean Connery era films like Goldfinger and From Russia With Love as the standard by which all James Bond movies are judged upon. Skyfall is also unique in that it feels the closest in keeping to the character created in the Ian Fleming novels while not being directly based on one of his books.

One of the most dramatic, intensely thrilling entries in the entire 007 canon, it’s easily arguable that Skyfall is the best film in the decades long series with its unique blend of modern cinema and nostalgic feel for Bond in bygone eras.

This is the third in a series of retrospective reviews of the James Bond film franchise as made by EON Productions in anticipation of the release of the 25th entry in the series, “No Time To Die,” which arrives in American theaters on October 8th.

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